Judge: California city must overturn 3,000-home project

SANTEE, Calif. (AP) — A judge has ordered the Southern California city of Santee to throw out the approval of a long-planned housing project, the latest major development in the state to be sidetracked over concerns about destructive wildfires.

The Santee City Council in late 2020 approved the Fanita Ranch project, giving the green light to 3,000 new homes in hills northeast of San Diego.

In her decision, Superior Court Judge Katherine Bacal wrote that Fanita Ranch developers hadn’t adequately considered how the new homes could affect potential wildfire evacuations. The judge said that eight resolutions and ordinances giving approval must be overturned, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported Monday.

The newspaper said the judge expressed concern that the plan didn’t fully address whether thousands of new residents would have time to flee during an emergency like a wildfire.

It’s the third California housing development to be blocked in recent months. The state has experienced increasingly larger and deadlier wildfires as climate change has made the West much warmer and drier over the past 30 years.

The Santee project, overseen by HomeFed Fanita Rancho, is not dead, and developers said they would revise the environmental impact report to address the judge’s concerns.

Messages left by the Union-Tribune with the city’s manager and attorney were not immediately returned.

The decision was celebrated by environmental groups that sued to stop the project, arguing that more homes would only increase the risk of fire.

Last October, a judge halted parts of the 1,100-home Otay Ranch project, also in San Diego County, after state Attorney General Rob Bonta and others objected that it would be too prone to wildfires.

Superior Court Judge Richard Whitney ruled that the county’s environmental impact report for portions of the Otay project failed to properly account for the increased risks from housing thousands of people in a fire hazard zone.

In February 2021, the attorney general’s office backed a Northern California court challenges contending Lake County officials did not account for increased wildfire risk from approving 1,400 homes, 850 hotel rooms and resort apartments at the Guenoc Valley Ranch property.

The challenges come at a time when California is struggling with a persistent affordable housing and homelessness problem, though critics said the proposed upscale developments would do little to help.

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